Monday, May 31, 2010

Time Among the Dead by Thomas Rayfiel

Secrets in every vase, crevice, and corner of a centuries old “Great House” – Upton Hall – inhabited by a crusty old grandfather, nearing ninety, a grandson, who might prove either a gold digger or an empathetic young man, and the usual cast of faithful servants all told in a genuine Victorian voice, add up to a devilishly interesting tale.

William, the seventh Earl of Upton, records his last days -- and decades of memories -- in a journal supplied by Seabold, his grandson. Pretty girls from a neighboring farm, a school chum of Seabold’s, and an old boat all play roles in this unfolding saga of a time in England long gone.

Surprisingly, this novel deals with quite a few philosophical questions of the 21st century. Permanent Press has done it again, albeit Rafiel has several novels to his credit. This novel has not yet been released, but should come out shortly.

The only flaw is two or three sentences which seemed quite awkward. However, those may be corrected in the final version. A ripping good yarn, eh what? 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 5/31/10

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

I have not read any Pynchon since grad school about 14 years ago, and this turned out a poor choice to pick back up – I barely made it to page 28 before invoking that most wonderful “Rule of 50.” The hard-bitten private eye, the beautiful, sexy, mysterious client, the smarmy, sarcastic LAPD cop, a murder, and guess who gets framed? I could not care less about any of these characters or what happens to them. I don’t care who killed the victim or why. The first 28 pages became one long boring cliché. Two stars just for the name and the glory of Gravity's Rainbow

--Chiron, 5/29/10

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thomas Jefferson: Author of America by Christopher Hitchens

This slim and interesting volume has Hitchens’ peculiar voice with occasional strident undertones leaking through. I don’t mind, because he is one of the best writers around today who criticizes the religious excesses our country founders in at this point in history. While most of the biography had a dry tone, the first chapter dealing with religion had the most meat for me. Four stars.

--Chiron, 5/28/2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

This novel puts me at half way through reading all of Iris Murdoch’s 26 novels. All of her characters are complex and interesting. Her stories are interesting, serious (mostly), poignant, unusual. A Severed Head adds to the mix with brilliant comedy at its drollest. Many times I actually laughed out loud to the consternation of the inevitable cat on my lap.

Martin Lynch-Gibbon runs a successful wine-merchant business. He married a beautiful, charming, sexy woman, Antonia, and he maintains a beautiful, charming, sexy mistress, Georgie. Add to this his best friend, an American psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson and his sister, Honor Klein. Martin’s sister Rosemary plays the role of mother to Martin. I understand Murdoch’s casts of characters much better now that I have read Conradi’s excellent biography.

What could possibly go wrong with this tangled gaggle of free spirits? Everything!

While the novel starts out with a “stiff-upper-lip” British tone, things do fall apart. As we top the hill, and the roller coaster rushes down, shocking and funny events made me read faster and faster all the way to the surprising ending – like the zigzags of the roller coaster for one last thrill as it pulls into the station.

Martin thinks he can have it all without consequences, but demons shadow him at every turn. While her style takes some getting used to, stay with it. Sometimes the beginnings do get confusing, but Murdoch’s marvelous prose will draw the reader deeper and deeper into the plot. Here Martin describes his wife, Antonia:

“Antonia has great tawny-colored intelligent searching eyes and a mobile expressive mouth which is usually twisted into some pout of amusement or tender interest. She is a tall woman; and although always a little inclined to plumpness has been called ‘willowy’, which I take as a reference to her characteristic twisted and unsymmetrical poses. Her face and body are never to be discovered quite in repose.” (17)

If you do not know Iris Murdoch, begin with The Bell, or her Booker Prize winner, The Sea, the Sea, or as I did with one of her last novels, The Book and the Brotherhood. You are in for hundreds of hours of delightful reading.

--Chiron, 5/23/10

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Iris Murdoch: Letters and Diaries, 1939-1945 edited and introduced by Peter J. Conradi

After reading Conradi’s exquisite and thoroughly documented biography of Iris Murdoch, I thought I would have little to learn about one of my all time favorite novelists. But these insights -- directly from the pen of Murdoch herself -- reveal much more about her. Even with Conradi’s superb effort, these journals and letters reveal inside information about Iris’ life, loves, relationships, and early life. I hope this is the first in a long series from Conradi.

This volume from England -- not yet published in the US -- will appeal to devotees of Iris and should be must-reading for all serious students of her work.

If you have never read Iris Murdoch, you are missing out on one of the great novelists of the 20th century. She wrote 26 novels as well as a handful of plays, poetry, criticism, and philosophy. Murdoch is truly one of the most outstanding women of letters in the history of British literature. She ranks with Pope and only a smidgen below Dr. Samuel Johnson in my estimation. Start with her Booker Prize winner The Sea, the Sea, or The Bell, or, as I did, The Book and the Brotherhood. I am about half way through her novels, and this has inspired me to read A Severed Head next. 5 stars

--Chiron, 5/16/10

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Pretend All Your Life by Joseph Mackin

Suspense/Thrillers are not really my thing, but I have to say, this 9/11 novel held my interest. While I should have seen the end coming, I didn’t and it was an unsettling surprise.

Richard Gallin is a successful New York plastic surgeon, who is spiraling downward since the loss of his son in one of the twin towers. He has an attractive girl friend, and he begins an affair with an art dealer who comes to his home to appraise some artworks. Encounters with a couple of other characters all complicate his life. This cast seems to weave a web of intrigue and danger around Gallin, but you will have to read this recently published first novel to find the who, what, when, where, why, and how for the resolution.

At first, I did not care for Richard -- he seemed not a nice person in several respects, but as Mackin peeled away the layers of his character, I began to soften. While I never completely sympathized with him, I did have a better understanding of his motivations.

Not, in my estimation a perfect novel, but then few are. A couple of bizarre coincidences also really annoyed me. 4 stars

--Chiron, 5/12/10

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler

If you are lucky, sometime during your life, you will meet that one person you belong with -- to have and to hold from that day forward. If you are very lucky you get to be with that person for a long time. If you are extremely lucky, that person is the last you ever need to meet.

Anne Tyler is one of my favorite authors, and I haven’t read anything by her in quite a while. She revels in relationships made and broken, found at the oddest times, in the oddest places and sometimes solidified and lost in a couple of weeks.

Liam Pennywell is nearly 61. He has a job he loves and does well, but it was not what he prepared himself to do. He drives a used Geo, and he lives alone. His ex-wife is a librarian, and he has an acceptably good relationship with her because of their three daughters. One day he meets Eunice Dunstead, who faintly reminds me of Muriel in an earlier Tyler novel, The Accidental Tourist. Liam and Eunice bond almost immediately, and Liam even says, “You’re the woman I love, and life is too short to go through it without you” (230).

Alas, life is not so simple, and numerous complications crowd in on Liam and his solitary life -- strangers, family, a job -- and Liam reflects on his life in great detail. On Christmas day, Liam visits with his daughters and grandchild, but later, he opts for solitude. Tyler writes,

“It didn’t bother Liam that he would be spending Christmas Day on his own. He had a new book about Socrates that he was longing to get on with, and he’d picked up a rotisserie chicken from the Giant the day before (275) …

Before he settled in with his book, he put the chicken in the oven on low and he exchanged his sneakers for slippers. Then he switched on the lamp beside his favorite armchair. He sat down and opened the book and laid Jonah’s bookmark on the table next to him. He leaned back against the cushions with a contented sigh. All he lacked was a fireplace, he thought.

But that was all right. He didn’t need a fireplace.

Socrates said … What was it he had said? Something about the fewer his wants, the closer he was to the gods. And Liam really wanted nothing.” (276)

This novels has such a warm, sweet flow to it, I could barely put it down. It is a wonderful story, wonderfully told. I like Liam. I like Anne Tyler -- a whole great big whopping lot of like -- for both of them. Five stars

--Chiron, 5/5/10

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Spooner by Pete Dexter

Pete Dexter’s new novel, Spooner, takes me back to the glory days of newspapers in the Philadelphia of my youth. The morning Inquirer and The Evening Bulletin, which my father brought with him every night as he came off the 5th street trolley from downtown, were sandwiched around the afternoon Daily News for the blue collar/sports-minded crowd. Pete Dexter wrote a column for this paper before leaving journalism to write fiction. This is his seventh novel along with a book of his newspaper columns.

Although originally from Michigan, Dexter has the voice of a Philadelphian when telling stories set in The City of Brotherly Love -- which is mostly true, except for when the Eagles, Flyers, Sixers, and Phillies host out-of-town teams. I remember one incident when sports fans booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snowballs during the final Eagle’s game of the 1968 season. Dexter’s characters have that quirky, interesting, volatile, and highly recognizable aura of Philadelphia about them.

Spooner kept me turning pages. As in all his works, Dexter sprinkles funny situations and comic utterances by his characters throughout, and let’s not forget his sometimes dark humor -- especially Chapter 85. The novel also has its poignant moments, however.

Dexter tells the story of Spooner, a misfit child whose father dies when he is quite young. Spooner’s mother remarries, and the novel largely revolves around the relationship between Spooner and his step-dad.

Near the end, Dexter writes,

“Spooner, a man by now of some reputation for going his own way, who had over the years taken pretty dramatic steps to be seen that way, craved the good opinion of his stepfather more than he could ever admit, and felt the chance to find out where he stood with him slipping away.” (442)

Dexter always takes me on a tour of familiar places in Philly -- Center City, the fictional, but all too recognizable “God’s Pocket district, and even Dirty Frank’s, a legendary bar near the Inquirer/Daily News building that was a favorite hangout of reporters. The narrator sounds like a cynical, observant reporter on the trail of an interesting story.

Although he denied being autobiographical during an interview when the book came out a few of months ago, numerous incidents in Spooner’s life match Dexter’s biography -- even down to the title of one of Spooner’s novels, Deadwood. The HBO series of a couple of years ago was based on Dexter’s Deadwood.

If you have never read Dexter, start with his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout. If you love newspapers and reporting as I do, you will want to read all of his works. Five Stars

--Chiron, 5/3/10